JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Gaming Association, representing the state’s 13 licensed casinos, has called for state and local health officials to pull the plug on thousands of unregulated gaming machines that have popped up at gas stations, bars and clubs in recent years.
The Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday that at least some of the state’s roughly 14,000 unregulated machines were in operation as the state grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak.
The state has discouraged large gatherings to prevent spreading the virus, and Gov. Mike Parson announced last week that the state would close licensed casinos at least until March 30.
The gaming association, which is pushing legislation to “eliminate illegal slot machines altogether,” said the machines pose a health threat.
“Often lined up one right next to the other in gas stations and other establishments, the cleanliness of these illegal and unregulated slot machines is questionable,” Mike Winter, executive director of the association, said in a statement. “We believe the state should shut down these illegal slot machines, for the safety of our residents.”
A study released March 17 by the National Institutes of Health said the new coronavirus was detectable for “up to two to three days” on plastic and stainless steel surfaces.
Casinos and out-of-casino game operators have long been at odds, with casinos alleging that the unregulated machines eat into casino revenues, some of which fund education in Missouri.
Gregg Keller, a Missouri GOP official and spokesman for one of the state’s largest out-of-casino game operators, Torch Electronics, said Tuesday that the machines are legal “so naturally they continue to be enjoyed by Missourians” during the coronavirus outbreak.
He said Thursday the company was working with city and county health departments "across the state" to "comply with all state, county, and city orders as they arise."
“No businesses have been closed and no machines have been targeted by the state,” said Lisa Cox, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services. “Right now, we are focused on promoting social distancing and good hygiene. This would be more easily enforceable by local health departments.”
A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, which houses the Missouri Gaming Commission, could not be reached for comment about whether staff that had been stationed in casinos had been dispatched to inspect establishments across the state for unlicensed games.
In Illinois, the state Gaming Board last week ordered all video gaming operations to end through March 30. Unlike Missouri, out-of-casino gambling on video machines is regulated in that state.
The Missouri Gaming Commission has deemed the out-of-casino machines illegal, and the state Highway Patrol has referred dozens of illegal gambling cases to local prosecutors in recent months.
But many county prosecutors have been reluctant to charge game operators with illegal gambling activity, saying they are awaiting the outcome of a case in Platte County.
The Missouri Senate, meanwhile, has debated legislation to crack down on the devices, but it’s unclear whether the upper chamber will be able to approve the legislation this year.
Leaders have suspended action in the chamber as the state grapples with the virus.
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